A CIVILIAN IN UNIFORM By Jean Kohn (continued)
Chapter Four - Algeria
So there we were, in Newport News, Virginia. We went off to Casablanca on a liberty ship which was fitted to transport a whole bunch of soldiers. The ship holds had various levels way down to the bottom. Each "floor" was filled with bunkers. Our little group of OGs, maybe 200 at most, was almost lost among the hundreds of soldiers from other Army units.
We could not be fed at the same time. We had "strange" schedules for lunch or dinner, twice a day, for example at two AM for one meal and two PM for the second meal. We also found out what navy beans were.
We were obliged to wear our life belts at all times since German submarines could very well hit us—especially at night. We were part of a large convoy and we could see the small destroyers going around us like a shepherd dog watching his flock.
We were kept busy cleaning the ship.
But we had a lot of free time and I played some chess. Others were having a great time with poker or black jack. I stayed away from these games as I never liked to play for money. I did try my hand at bridge when someone asked for a "fourth," having learned to play with my mother and two of her friends. The trouble in my family was that bridge was an occasion to talk to each other. We cheated for the fun of it looking over the shoulders of the others. I was quickly thrown out of the game by "professional" players who could not understand my way of holding and playing cards.
There was a group of Italian officers who had been taken prisoner. They obviously were not fascist. They were going back to the liberated southern part of the country to join the Italian army or civilian Administration after the first fall of Mussolini. In 1944 Italy was getting organized as a democracy. Good people were needed and these ex-prisoners were probably chosen to help rebuild the country. In the OGs, as said previously, we had an Italian speaking group made up of Italian Americans: good American boys, of Italian origin. They all spoke Italian.
Apparently, the Italian prisoners, mostly officers, seemed to be orignally from the North, They seemed to be well educated and distinguished. Some of them smoked cigarettes with a holder and one of them had a "pince-nez" instead of regular eye glasses. This one in particular seemed to be an aristocrat.
The Italian Americans OGs were more of the Sicilian type. Their grand parents or parents had immigrated from the South. When our boys spoke Italian, the Italian officers used to laugh themselves sick. The same way a modern Parisian reacts when he hears a Canadian from Québec speak French. They kept telling jokes and stories with an Italo-American dialect to the great joy of the Italian "aristocrats."
I learnt a lot of American folk songs on the boat. At that time among others, there was that little song I still hum once in a while made popular in the thirties by Ella Fitzgerald:
"A-tisket, A-tasket, I had a brown and yellow basket."
Our Italian OGs were singing all the time much more than the French or Greek OGs.
You can imagine fully grown men, with deep, deep voices singing that little girl song:
"The little basket, was it blue?"
"No no no!"
"Was it green?"
"No no no!"
And everybody would join in.
Of course we all got seasick when the weather on the ocean started to be bad. Down in the bunks at night as the ship rolled in heavy weather, when one fellow became seasick, immediately everybody got seasick. It was contagious.
We finally arrived and landed in Casablanca.
From way out, I could see a huge French flag on top of a battleship being repaired in the port. I think this was the Jean Bart which had escaped in 1940 from Brittany. This made me feel good. It seemed that finally I was getting back home again. My French blood was still boiling in me.
We did not stay long in Casablanca. We took a train to go to Algiers. We were loaded into a typical freight car. The French army transported soldiers in these cars to carry either 8 horses or 40 men. That is the way we went from Casablanca to Algiers. The floor of the cars had been covered with straw to make our ride somewhat softer.
The weather was very cold at night during that trip, as we went up into the mountains before reaching the Algerian coast.
I had brought with me a small accordion I salvaged from France in 1940. During my sleep it disappeared—stolen ? thrown out ? Who knows ?
After what seemed to be a long trip we finally arrived in Algiers. We did not stay in the city but instead we went right on to our base camp near Sidi Feruch, west of Algiers.
There we were under the command of Major Alfred Cox, a nice soft spoken man, very human, and we were assigned to Lieutenant Grahl Weeks. We knew him from the Chevy Chase days. We stayed with him all the time.
I don't remember the other lieutenant who was with us, but for quite a while our other officer was Captain Pons. He was an "older" man, maybe in his 40s: he seemed old to us. Extremely nice. He had a broad knowledge of the most varied things. I loved to talk to him. He could have been a teacher.
We trained for parachute jumping. All we had to do to get our wing was three jumps.
I did my three jumps. On the first jump I hurt my ankle. I thought: "My God, I can't jump again, I won't be able to go on the mission, I'll be dismissed! I'll have to stay behind!!" I was desperate. I was very, very sad.
But I bandaged my ankle really tight and I jumped a second time. The first time I was not scared, but the second time I was really scared!! The first time you jump you don't really know what is going to happen; but the second time you know a little bit more about it—but not enough to be an "expert" This second jump is the worst. On the third one, you know everything is going to be alright and also—most important—you are getting your wing and collect an extra fifty dollars a month!!!
I do not remember if anyone "froze" during those jump exercises. We were very proud to have our wings and we could tuck the bottom of our pants in our boots like real paratroopers and be different from the "ordinary" infantry man!!! And those wings on the chest!!!
In addition to parachute jumping, we were also constantly trained in running a few miles every day, shown on how to blow up bridges, taught about explosives; booby traps, shooting. As said before we were prepared to be what is now known as "guerilla fighters."
The idea was, they told us time and time again, that we were meant to come back alive, and this was very very important, of course—to us in the first place, but also to the OGs.
It is true we were told that the Army was putting a lot of time and effort to train us, therefore it could not afford to lose us! Our officer told us "We want you to come back alive, we do not want to see your name on a monument."
And how were we supposed to come back alive?
"Don't fight!! Hit and run!! Hit and run!! Don't try to hold them off, because there are more of them out there than you are, and with much more firepower. They are going to shoot and kill you. Don't try to be a hero."
This was the state of mind I had before going into the "real" thing. Do not try to be a hero. Never.
Unfortunately, some of our officers and men were hurt (I was too), and some of them died, which was most unfortunate and dramatic. For many unexplained reasons they did not die because they wanted to die—nobody in his right mind wants to die—they were killed or wounded because it just happened they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. And they did fight, that is for sure, they did fight. Our OG unit counted about 180 fighting men. I believe we lost four men, one of them was my lieutenant, Paul Swank. We shall go back to that sad story later on.
We trained in the Atlas mountain range, not far from Blida, west of Algiers. We were driven to some deserted place, on foot and on half ration with some C-rations or K-rations, I forget what they were. The idea was to train to survive without much food. If we could find some, so much the better. So we had to find something to eat in addition to our half rations. We were not supposed to buy any food. We could ask local farmers to give us whatever they could spare in the same way we would have to go asking during our fore coming mission in southern France. We could also steal whatever we could find and hopefully not get caught doing it . On the other hand the order was that no matter how hungry we would get, we couldn't buy any kind of food.
The first thing we did was to visit some farmers who could may be spare some food.
They flatly refused, even though they could very well have given us a few potatoes or a chicken.
"NO" they said, so later on we went back at night and helped ourselves since during our daylight visit we had looked around to see where was the food reserve.
During those night visits, the trouble came, not from the farmers who must have been asleep or scared, but from the dogs. They barked and barked loud and clear. We were good at crawling and we managed to steal a few potatoes.
We also did fish, with grenades. That is the best way to get a lot of fish without much effort. You go near a river, throw a grenade and then pick up all the fish floating around. Perfect.
One day we even captured a frog. We tried to cook part of it. Two frog legs for fifteen men. There was not much to share.
But we did kill a boar, a small wild boar. Most of us were city kids. We did not know what a boar was, we did not even know what a pig was. At home we ate ham, and that was it. We had killed that pig with a booby trap. Someone had seen that poor boar going around the same path close to our camp. We set up the booby trap and waited. That trap was first set off by one of men, Rock Veilleux. He walked into the trap, Thank God he did not get hurt. But the boar got shocked, we ran and we killed it. The next thing that happened was the discussion on how to prepare the boar to eat it. We did not know how to take the skin off. One of the fellows who had been on a farm told us :
"No, no, on pigs you don't take the skin off, you just shave it."
"Yes, just take the hair off."
And there we were with a Gillette razor and shaving soap trying to "shave" that poor pig. It took almost the whole day to prepare that damned thing, but after all that work we did have a good meal.
Our camp was near a mountain stream.
We trained on blowing big rocks to make believe we would stop some onslaught from imaginary enemies. One man, originally from Brittany received a piece of stone on the head as he was too close to the explosive charge. Guess what? The stone broke. We joked him since French Bretons are supposed to have extremely hard heads!!!
After that episode, we went in the mountain and met a local Arab farmer, he showed us on top of a hill what appeared to be a large "house." He said :
"You know, up there, the water is as cold as snow."
"And what is it ?"
"It is a Monastery."
Let's go and pay the monks a visit. It was a Trappist Monk Monastery, called La Trappe de Notre Dame de l'Atlas par Lodi.
We received a warm welcome. They did not have much food, but they shared with us. We had to talk with very very low voices since it was early in the afternoon. The monks get up very early in the morning and after lunch they rest for a while.
There were some French soldiers there in addition to the monks. All them were sick with TB, tuberculosis. They had fought in Lybia, they were weak. This was a good place for them to rest and cure. One of them was a chaplain, also with TB. He recalled the Lybian campaign and told us:
"Well you know, I won the battle of .... "(I forget if it was Bir Hakeim or El Alamein, anyway one of the battles in Lybia fought by the Free French soldiers).
"What you do mean "you won the battle??""
"Yes, the day before the battle, I prayed God and we won."
Oh, I was very much impressed.
We also trained with the French Foreign Legion near Sidi Bel Abbès. There were tanks, half tracks, trucks. Dust was all over, in the clothes, in the food. I cannot recall what we did, but we came back to our camp worn and dirty.
In Sidi Bel Abbès, while we were waiting for instruction, an Arab came to us and asked us if we wanted to buy a little girl about ten who would be our "maid."
"Slavery," we hollered.
Not only did we said no, but we were outraged. Somebody said, "Let's shoot him." We did not.
On another training program, we were supposed to take a bridge defended by French regulars. We did not do so well and I was taken prisoner.
But still we were being prepared to go and jump somewhere. We knew it would be France. The "Italians" would go to northern Italy still under German occupation, and the "Greeks" would go to Greece.
Our job would be to help in preparing for the landing of the Allied armies in southern France.
To go back a little bit on our daily life, I went to Algiers many times on passes. These were day passes. We had to come back at night of course.
I went to the theatre, heard a recital by the famous violonist Heifetz who played American cowboy music as I never heard since. He told us that he would play some Bach whether we liked it nor not:
"Bach is like spinach, it is good for you."
I talked to people in the street. I am not really an extrovert, but I like "conversation." In Algeria, the "Europeans" were quite talkative like people in the south of France. It was easy to find someone to chat with.
I realized there was a lot of anti French "nationalism" going on among the Arabs. Since I was an American soldier, many Arabs talked to me in a way they would never have talked to a French man.
I remember vividly a conversation with a Moroccan "French" officer. I believe it was near Sidi Bel Abbès while we were part of a large training exercise.
"You see, I am a French officer." I think he was a lieutenant.
He added he probably would never have a chance to raise to a higher rank than, let's say, major. I inquired—"why ? "
"Because I am an Arab and a Moroccan. We want our freedom."
I answered: "But you are free."
"Oh, no," he said. "No, no, this still is a colony."
He also had a lot of hope that President Roosevelt would help them free themselves from the French colonial administration.
And the Arabs in Algiers had the same feeling of being "underdogs." I remember talking to a French man, he was a postal worker—very nice, normal type of man. Two young Arab women passed in front of us, without a veil. They looked very much like French girls.
He looked at them and said "just think they want to vote, you realize THEY want to vote. This is crazy."
I answered, "Why shouldn't they have the right to vote?"
"First, because they are Arabs; and secondly because they are women."
Imagine this conversation in 1944 Algiers.
I kept pushing. "Why not?"
He answered, "Why yes?"
We just were not on the same wave length.
Near our camp were some farms. Some of those farmers were called "colons," maybe because they did not own the land they worked. It might have been lent to them by the government. They did not own the land but only farmed it.
One of these "colons" was called by us: "the Italian"—he might have been born in Italy or be of Italian origin. We did not like him. He was fat, with a round red face.
I did mention earlier the fact that the American Army "overfeeds" its soldiers. Maybe the food is not the best tasting, but there is a lot of it. Our mess kits were filled with food thrown on them. What cannot be eaten was thrown away in the garbage cans as we used to queue to wash our mess kits in large washing pails: one with soap, one with rinse water and finally one with clear water.
At the mess kits washing area we used to see many Arab kids just outside the fence asking:
"Please give us the food you did not eat".
Our sergeant in charge of the kitchen, told us:
"No you cannot give this food to the kids—You have to put it in the garbage can because I promised to give it to that Italian guy to feed his pigs with it." This really got us very mad!!! Very, very mad indeed. As a matter of fact I think we did inscribe a 45 bullet with the name of that Italian "colon" on it as we had decided to shoot him. Of course we did not.
Just for a moment think of those little hungry Arab kids who might have been eight to ten years old in 1944. Can you think of what they came to be ten years later in 1954 remembering how the "colon" had taken the leftover food of the American soldiers to feed his pigs.
That and other humiliating similar stories could be added to the many reasons why France lost Algeria.
The French Administration, the French "colons," the "Europeans" who lived there could not and did not want to understand what was going on in the Arabs' minds. They could not understand the whole World was changing.
I was just barely twenty years old. It seemed I understood it all. Later on when I tried to bring up that problem to my own father, I met that same lack of comprehension I had been faced with in Algiers.
The Allied armies had invaded Normandy since early June. We were training for the southern invasion which was in everybody's mind. It started on August 15th 1944.
In July 1944 we were ready to go. Then a new officer to replace Captain Pons came in: Lieutenant Paul Swank. We did not know him at all, we did not know who he was, where he came from. He was a very silent reserved man. We liked him right away, as a matter of fact we liked him very much; but we did not know how to "handle" him.
Lieutenant Weeks on the other hand had "lived" with us for quite a while. We knew him in-and-out. No problem. We knew who he was, we knew his weaknesses and his good sides. He was fair. On the other hand, that new lieutenant, Paul Swank: we just could not make him out. I would say he was somewhat "timid." We respected him especially for his "military" background and knowledge. He did not say much and did not enter into long conversations as we had been used to with Captain Pons. When he gave an order we just obeyed—no questions asked. That order was always logical.
It was shortly thereafter that we prepared for Mission Peg.